Caught in the Act

Darkness is fast approaching as our charter boat full of fish-watching friends anchors in 12 feet of water inside Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, only a stone’s throw from the Blue Heron Bridge. A constant hum of road noise overhead and the solid wall of lights of Riviera Beach, Fla., off to our right leave little doubt that we are diving in the heart of a pulsing metropolis.

Two frogfish perform their unique mating ritual

Unhurriedly gearing up while waiting for the tide to go slack, Anna quizzes Lureen Ferretti, a frequent visitor to the site, about a striated frogfish that has recently taken up residence near a mooring line. As Anna zips up my wetsuit, she asks if I want to tag along. I gladly accept, and who wouldn’t? The exotic circumtropical species is a rare find in Florida waters.

When we tumble off the dive platform, the current is still brisk. According to calculations, it will be nearly a half hour before high tide brings a period of calm, allowing us to hunt safely the bridge’s encrusted pilings. Until then, we have a frogfish to find. Fortunately, our quarry lives close to shore in the lee of a spit of land where a fleet of small, seldom-sailed boats bob.

The instant we arrive at the mooring, we realize our stars are aligned. Not only do we find a pregnant female as round as a grapefruit, but best yet, a golden-brown male half her size nestles at her side. If what we have heard about the reproductive behavior of frogfish is correct, we’re in for a treat. Not daring to take my eyes off the pair, I reach over and squeeze Anna’s hand.

Within seconds the male quivers, snaps his fins taunt and prances about his passive mate. In all likelihood, he has been hanging around all afternoon becoming increasingly aroused by a rising tide of pheromones. His animated courtship antics play a crucial role in the female’s ability to hydrate the thousands of eggs rapidly swelling within a casing tightly coiled inside her ballooning ovaries.

Orange male frogfish approaches round, pregnant frogfish

As we stare, hardly daring to blink, the male’s passion shifts into overdrive. Increasingly aggressive nudges pry the female’s hindquarters off the sand. Quick as a snap, he wedges beneath her blimp of a body and with a thrashing tail propels her up. In a blur of dislodged sand and spinning bodies, a 4-foot ribbon emerges, catches the current and disappears into the night.

Although it is well past midnight when we arrive back at the motel room, Anna and I, still giddy with luck, watch her video sequence again and again. Her images are simply amazing. Even with the camera clicking off 30 frames per second, it was unable to capture clearly the supersonic spawning spin of the frogfish, showing the pair rotating in opposite directions.

Just before lights out, Anna, curled contentedly in the comforter with her eyes half closed, whispers the last word of the day, “Wow!”

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© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2010